(The below interview of Alex Haley by Murray Fisher was originally published in the January 1977 issue of Playboy Magazine. In addition, it was also published within Alex Haley: The Playboy Interviews by Ballantine Books in July 1993.)
Alex Haley became the only Playboy interviewer ever to become the subject of a Playboy Interview—with Murray Fisher, Assistant Managing Editor of Playboy, as his interviewer. They knew the topic, and each other, so well by then that they could have done it in their sleep, and after years of working on the book Roots around the clock, they almost did. But of all the interviews ever published, it became the magazine’s sentimental favorite.
“Even then we knew that this book was special, that it would make a mark. But we weren’t prepared for what happened from the day it appeared in the nation’s bookstores. Roots shot straight to the top of the bestseller charts, and when the twelve-hour miniseries based on the book aired for eight nights in January of 1977, it became a national phenomenon. Theaters and restaurants that week stood empty while 130 million people stayed home to watch, and book sales escalated to more than 5.5 million copies in hardcover and paperback.
“Adulation poured in from critics all over the world—it was ultimately published in 37 languages—and at least one reviewer called it ‘among the most important books of the century.’
“Another wrote: ‘It forever altered America’s perceptions of itself and its past.’ Playboy published a riveting advance excerpt from the book (reproduced in Alex Haley: The Playboy Interviews as ‘The Mixing of the Blood’) in October of 1976, and three months later, Alex became the only Playboy interviewer ever to become the subject of a Playboy Interview—with me as his interviewer.” ~ Murray Fisher.
A Candid Conversation With The Author of The American Saga “Roots”
If it weren’t for the fact that it’s a true story, Roots might well be the Great American Novel. In the months since its publication, it has been compared to both Moby Dick and War and Peace, and at least one reviewer called it “among the most important books of the century.” Doubleday, its publisher, ordered the largest print run ever for a hardcover book (200,000), which sold out in a matter of weeks, and there are indications it may become the first book in history to sell over 1,000,000 copies in hardback—even before Dell brings out the paperback version.
Its author, Alex Haley, will undoubtedly become a household name later this month, when ABC-TV broadcasts the first episode of a 12-hour series based on Roots, making it the longest and most expensive ($6,000,000) dramatic television production ever aired.
We at Playboy take a special pleasure in featuring Haley as our holiday interview subject. In 1962, when he was a free-lance writer and journalist, we assigned him to conduct a long question-and-answer session with Miles Davis, which became the first “Playboy Interview.” Besides interviewing a number of personalities for Playboy, ranging from American Nazi George Lincoln Rockwell to entertainer Johnny Carson, Haley conducted our interviews with the two most significant black leaders of the Sixties—Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. (One result of the “Playboy Interview” with Malcolm X was the bestselling Autobiography, which Haley wrote.) It seems especially fitting to us that Haley be on the other side of the tape recorder this month, since he seems destined to be one of the most significant black figures of the Seventies.
Now 55 and living modestly in West Los Angeles, Haley is in the midst of a mammoth publicity tour for his book, but in the past several months he found time for a series of conversations with a man who also has a special place in both Playboy’s and Haley’s history. He is Murray Fisher, former Assistant Managing Editor of this interviews, who assigned Haley that first “Playboy Interview” and shaped the format of the feature. It was both their professional relationship and their personal friendship that led Haley to ask Fisher to be his editor on Roots, a task that has occupied no small amount of Fisher’s own time over the 12-year period it took Haley to write the book. Now a Contributing Editor to Playboy, Fisher conducted this interview with his old friend and colleague as “a labor of love.” It is Haley’s story, but one that Fisher knows almost as well as his own. His report:
“In the 12 years since Alex had asked me to help him edit Roots, we’d met to work on it in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, New Orleans, the West Indies—just about everywhere but the place it all began: Henning, his home town in rural Tennessee, where he’d first heard the stories as a five-year-old on his grandmother’s front porch. Now, at last, the book was published, and he had embarked on a promotion tour that included—among its 49 interviews and public appearances in 29 cities in 30 days—a half-day stop in Henning to film a television documentary of the prodigal son’s return to his ‘roots.’ He invited me to join him there. ‘Where will I find you?’ I asked. ‘We’ll be moving around town. Just ask the first person you see.’
“He wasn’t hard to find. On the lawn in front of a small white frame house were a crowd of people, cables, cameras and parked cars, and at the center stood Alex, surrounded by interviewers peppering him with questions while the camera crew prepared to shoot him walking up the path to the front door for the third time, each from a different angle. ‘Some home-coming.’ I said when we were out of earshot. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘It’s been just Grandma’s house all my life, and now with all those lights and those reporters, suddenly it’s a media event. But I guess I’ll have to get used to that kind of thing. Now that the book is out, I’m beginning to realize that the stories I heard from Grandma—sitting in that very rocker right up there on the porch—don’t really belong to me anymore. So I’ve decided to keep that chair; next time you come to my house, it’ll be on my front porch.’
“In 1873, soon after Alex’ ancestors had arrived in Henning by wagon train from the plantation in North Carolina where they had lived as slaves, most of them had become founders of the New Hope Colored Methodist Episcopal Church—where the documentary’s final scene was shot that night at a special service held in honor of the town’s most celebrated citizen.
“It was recently rebuilt in the gleaming white architectural style of a suburban corporate headquarters, and, waiting for him inside the new church, dressed in its Sunday best, bathed in the brilliance of quartz movie lights, sat the entire congregation, filling every pew.
“Glad to be there, but feeling a little out of place—though perhaps less so than the jeaned and bearded film crew from L.A.—I slipped in and found a seat in the back. A moment later, the doors opened and Alex started walking down the aisle toward the pulpit, followed by his younger brothers George and Julius, who had been invited by the TV people to make it a ‘family reunion.’
“A black boy of about ten in the row ahead, staring at Alex with shining eyes, asked, ‘Is that him?’ He didn’t have to wait long for an answer; later, everyone in that church was giving him a standing ovation. The cameras, of course, were rolling. Looking a little sheepish, Alex sat down on a bench behind the pulpit beside his brothers, and Fred Montgomery, a deacon of the church, an alderman on the town council and a lifelong friend of Alex’, led the purple-gowned choir and the congregation in a rousing spiritual. Then a white aide to Henning’s mayor got up to say a few words about the pride everyone in the community took in its native son.
“Then, standing nervously with one arm on the piano for support, a teenage girl, obviously her high school’s valedictorian, recited tremulously a short speech she had not only memorized but undoubtedly written herself. By the time she got to the end, she was looking at the audience rather than the floor, and she said loudly and firmly, ‘What Mr. Haley has done for us—and for the world—will remain eternal.’
“The congregation was on its feet again, and it was Alex’ turn to speak. In that deep, down-home baritone he can pour on like honey over biscuits, he told them about his search for roots, ‘a story that began right here in Henning just two blocks from where I stand.’ It was a shorter, but more personal, version of the dramatic and deeply moving speech that’s made him one of the most popular speakers on the lecture circuit for the past ten years—a speech he’s made so often that passages from it have become almost a narrative litany of oral history. Parts of it even turned up in his answers to my questions. But there in that Henning pulpit, he added something new: an obviously heartfelt tribute to his home town.
“ ’It’s not a pretty place,’ he said. ‘There’s nothing very special about it. But to me it’s a symbol of small-town America, the birthplace of those old-fashioned virtues that are our deepest strengths as a nation—like compassion for your fellow man: Even to this day, there isn’t a door in Henning where somebody cold or hungry would get turned away. Values like respect for your elders—needing them, caring for them, listening to them; they’ve got a lot to teach us all.’
“There’s no question that Alex has missed his calling as a fundamentalist preacher; or maybe he hasn’t. Every few sentences were interrupted with outcries of ‘Say it!’ and ‘Amen.’ And when he was finished, people were weeping, cheering, applauding, rushing up to touch him, shake his hand, gush out their thanks.
“He couldn’t afford to be late for a speech to 5000 teachers later that night in Memphis. But he’s constitutionally incapable of brushing people off, and it was half an hour before he could make it to the door. Dazed with exhaustion after two weeks in a different city every night, he lapsed into silence and sat with his eyes closed almost all the way to the Mid-South Coliseum. Arriving just in time to be rushed onstage, somehow he managed to crank himself up into delivering another rafter ringer; and the crowd went wild again.
“He couldn’t get back to his hotel until three A.M.; his plane was leaving at 7:30. As he trudged with me down the hall to his room, he was nearly out on his feet. ‘If only they wouldn’t come at me so,’ he said. We went on to talk about that for a few minutes more, while he sat on the edge of his bed and pulled off his shoes and socks, and then I said good night. Though this conversation was the last in the 20 hours of taping sessions we’d recorded, I decided to make it our first exchange in the interview—for it seemed to foreshadow a new life for Alex that promised not only wealth and fame but elevation, in some mysterious way, to the mythic stature of a spiritual leader.
“The following personal opinion may compromise my credibility as a journalist, but frankly, I value more highly my credibility as a friend of Alex Haley’s for 15 years. And the simple fact is that I consider him the finest and most decent man I’ve ever known. If we have to have a spiritual leader, we could do a whole lot worse.”
Fisher: The reaction you’ve evoked in public appearances since the publication of Roots has often been almost worshipful. How does that make you feel?
Haley: It disturbs me. My most devout hope was to write a book that would move people, and apparently I’ve succeeded. But I truly feel that I was merely a conduit for a story that was intended to be told, and I know that it’s the story I tell, not me, that they’re responding to. If only that response weren’t so intense. A few weeks ago, I was talking with friends at a small party in Los Angeles, when a young black woman I’d never seen before came rushing up to me, grabbed my hand and fell to her knees, bubbling her gratitude. All I could think of to do was tell her to stop it and pull her to her feet. Things like that aren’t just embarrassing: they’re unsettling. She just didn’t understand that what Roots is saying—to black people, especially—is that once you find out who you really are, you don’t have to go down on your knees to anyone anymore. If people are starting to look at me like I’m some kind of Gandhi, all I can say is: I’m not qualified for the job; and even if I were, I wouldn’t want it. All I did was write a book, and I’m the same guy now that I was before I wrote it.
Fisher: But that book has become a runaway best seller and on January 30, it will debut in an unprecedented 12-hour television adaptation for which a nightly audience of at least 50,000,000 is being predicted. You may be the same guy you were before, but don’t you think all this is bound to change your life?
Haley: It already has. Hell, I feel like I’m living somebody else’s life. After 15 years as a journalist. I’d gotten used to a certain lifestyle: hustling for a buck, waiting for the phone to ring with an assignment, wangling my way past secretaries to interview their bosses. Now, all of a sudden, I’m going to be paying someone as much to handle my finances as I used to make in a year. The phone is ringing off the wall with invitations, such as to join assorted dignitaries for lunch at the State Department and dinner at the White House, queries from writers for interviews that used to reject my stuff, wanting to do stories on me; and now playboy is making me its first interviewer ever to be interviewed by the interviews. And, just to wrap up the irony, I’m being interviewed by you, the guy who used to be my editor at the interviews.
Fisher: Does that bother you?
Haley: After all those years at the mercy of your blue pencil, I’m looking forward to it. The only trouble is, by this time we know each other so well that I know what you’re going to ask before you open your mouth, and you know what I’m going to say before I open mine. So why don’t we save ourselves the trouble of talking? I’ll write your questions, you write my answers and we’ll just mail it in.
Fisher: Good idea. But just for the sake of appearances, why don’t we go through the motions of taping an actual conversation?
Haley: Just as long as you promise not to ask leading questions. I’ve heard about you playboy interviewers.
Fisher: We’ll give you the same consideration you always offered people when you were doing interviews.
Haley: In that case, forget the whole thing.
Fisher: Fine, just as soon as we finish the interview. You were talking about what success has done to your life.
Haley: Well, I’m being inundated with requests to appear on television shows hosted by stars whose publicists never used to return my calls, with letters from universities asking me to accept honorary degrees and address their graduating classes. I find myself being eased into plush leather armchairs and offered cigars in executive sanctum sanctorums that I couldn’t have broken into with TNT a few years ago. My daily calendar, where I used to scrawl my grocery lists, is blocked out from breakfast to bedtime for meetings with people who want my name, my permission, my support, my endorsement, my commitment, my involvement and especially money—to underwrite everything from stuff like Roots T-shirts and Afro-American tour groups to worthwhile social causes and promising television and movie projects, some of which I plan to pursue as head of my own production company later this year.
Fisher: You’re not complaining, are you?
Haley: I’m having the time of my life. I’ve never felt happier, younger, stronger, more energetic and alive than I do today—because I set for myself a task that seemed impossible, and yet somehow I completed it. It took 12 years, but I feel it was worth every moment of it, because Roots tells a story that’s needed to be told for 200 years. That was reward enough for undertaking it, but I’m happy to say that Roots is going to earn me something far more tangible, as well as precious: financial independence.
After being harassed by debt for more years than I care to remember, I now feel beyond a reasonable doubt that I will never have to waste another moment worrying about rent, taxes, alimony, the lot of it. I mean, it’s funny that at this very moment, while I’m here talking to you, I’m sitting and folding my own laundry. But by the time this interview appears, I’ll finally be in a position to buy what I’ve always longed for—the time to spend on things I care about that I used to have to spend on things I didn’t care about.
Fisher: Do you think success may spoil—or stifle—Alex Haley?
Haley: I pray not. Not as long as I remember who I am and where I came from. Every time I catch myself getting annoyed when I have to wait outside some studio for a while because the limousine is late, every time I pick up the phone in some fancy hotel to order a steak from room service rather than run down to the coffee shop for a hamburger, which I’d actually enjoy just as much, I think about Miss Scrap Green and Fred Montgomery and all the other good people I grew up with back in Henning, Tennessee, and I wonder what they’d say if they could see me now. And I’m glad they can’t. Because their values are still my values, and they always will be. No matter where I go or what I do with my life, no matter how many books I write or movies I produce, I’ll always be “Miz Haley’s boy” to them, and that’s the way it ought to be.
A while ago, just after I had been interviewed by a television host who introduced me as “the author of one of the great literary works of our time,” I went home to visit the family and as I was walking down the street one morning, I met this old man—the ageless kind every small town has—going the other way. “Mornin’, sir,” I said. You just don’t pass anyone in a small town without saying hello. “How do,” he replied, stopping and squinting at me. “Ain’t you Miz Haley’s boy?” “Yes, sir,” I said. “Ain’t seen you aroun’ for a while,” he said. “What you doin’ with yourself nowadays?” “I’m a writer.” “What you write?” “Books.” “How do you do that?” “Well, it’s kind of hard to explain.” “Write somethin’ for me, then.” “I’m afraid it doesn’t work quite that way.” He considered that for a while, and then he said, “Well, if you was to tell me you was a lightnin’ bug, I’d ‘spect you to light up.”
Ever since then, whenever I’ve been tempted to feel important—and there’ve been a few times—I just remember that old man. Henning is what keeps me honest. It’s my roots, and those roots run deep—from my Grandma Cynthia’s porch all the way back to Africa.
Fisher: Wasn’t that the porch where your grandmother told you the stories about your family that led to the writing of your book?
Haley: Yes, it was. Whenever I go home to visit Henning, I always go over to the old house and sit on that porch for a while. The new owners don’t seem to mind. Grandma’s long gone, of course, but while I’m sitting there—in the same white-wicker chair she used to rock on while she talked—I remember all the stories she told as if it were yesterday.
Fisher: How long ago was it?
Haley: About half a century now. The earliest I can remember hearing them was a year or so after my grandfather Will Palmer died, when I was around five. Grandma had lived for that man ever since the day they’d met 38 years before, and when he died, something inside her went along with him. She’d always been a lively woman, but from then on, she took to sitting out on the front porch and just rocking for hours at a time. Since my mother was off teaching school and my father had taken over Grandpa’s lumber mill, I spent most of my time alone at home with Grandma.
But after a few months, she began inviting various sisters, nieces and cousins around her age—Aunt Plus, Aunt Viney, Aunt Liz, Aunt Till, Cousin Georgia and a few others—to come and keep her company. They’d arrive from exotic places like Dyersburg, which was all of 25 miles away; Inkster, Michigan; St. Louis; even Kansas City; and they’d stay for a few weeks, sometimes the whole summer, often five or six of them at a time, cooking, knitting, talking and puttering their way through the day. Every night, after the supper dishes had been washed, just around dusk, as the lightning bugs were beginning to flick on and off above the honeysuckle vines, they’d all drift out to the porch and settle down in their favorite rockers—with me scrunched up on the floor behind Grandma’s—and they’d pick up where they left off the night before, with her taking the lead, telling stories about the family.
Fisher: Tell us a few.
Haley: They were just bits and pieces, weaving back and forth through the years. Some were from Grandma’s own life and Grandpa Will’s—how the leading white businessmen of Henning, in a historic decision, had turned ownership of the town’s only lumber company over to him when its drunken white owner had brought it to the brink of bankruptcy, and how he had gone on to become one of the town’s most respected citizens. Only a generation before, they recalled, the same town’s white business community had forbidden Grandma’s father, Tom Murray, to open a blacksmith shop, so he’d built up a thriving trade with a rolling shop—an anvil and a forge on a wagon—which he drove from farm to farm.
After emancipation, it had been Tom who led the family—his half-Cherokee wife, Irene, and their eight children, his seven brothers and sisters and their children—across the Appalachians in a wagon train from “the Murray plantation” in Alamance County, North Carolina, all the way to Henning. They’d been lured to this backwoods settlement in western Tennessee, Tom had said, by his father, George, who’d returned from his travels as a freedman with tales of a “promised land” with soil so rich that “if you plant a pig’s tail, a hog’ll grow.” Proud of his ancestry, George had kept alive the stories of the family he’d heard from his mother, Kizzy, by repeating them as a ritual at the birth of each new child by his wife, Matilda. But he was hardly a dutiful father and he earned a justified reputation as a ladies’ man—and as a high-rolling gambler on the fighting cocks he had trained since boyhood for his massa, Tom Lea.
Fisher: Hence his nickname, “Chicken George”?
Haley: Which he carried with him proudly to his death, along with a derby hat and a rakish green scarf, which he wore like a trademark. Time and again there on the porch, I heard how Massa Lea had finally lost almost everything he owned in a wager to an English nobleman, who took Chicken George off to England as his gamecock trainer for three years. When he left, it seems that Massa Lea lost more than a cockfighter. When George was a boy, Kizzy had told him that he’d been sired by Massa Lea, who had raped her on the night of her arrival at the Lea plantation. At 16, she’d been sold away from her parents for helping a boy escape from the plantation of Dr. William Waller in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, where she had been born and raised. Her mother, Kizzy told young George, was the big-house cook, Bell. And her father—the furthest-back person anyone in the family ever spoke of—was a man they called the African.
Fisher: Did they know any more than that about him?
Haley: They said he had been brought across the ocean to a place they called “Naplis,” that he had tried four times to escape from the plantation of his first owner, “Massa John Waller,” and that after his fourth attempt, he was offered the choice of castration or having a foot cut off. Because he chose the foot, said Grandma, “I’m here to tell about it.” The African told Kizzy that the massa’s brother, Dr. William Waller, had bought him, nursed him back to health, put him to work in his garden and later had him serve as his buggy driver. Though John Waller had named him Toby, the women said the African had always angrily insisted that the other slaves call him by his real name, which they pronounced “Kin-tay.”
As Kizzy grew up, according to the old ladies on the porch, Kin-tay taught her words from his own language. He called a guitar a ko, for example, and as they rode in the buggy past the Mattaponi River near the plantation, he’d point and say something that sounded like Kamby Bolongo. The thing Kizzy remembered most vividly—and passed on to Chicken George, who later told his children, and so on down to me—was that when Kin-tay was a boy of about 17 “rains”—his word for years—he had been out in the forest, not far from his village in Africa, chopping wood to make a drum, when four men had set upon him, beaten him senseless and marched him in chains to the ship in which he was taken to America and sold into slavery.
Fisher: Did those stories make much of an impression on you at the time?
Haley: I loved them, but I didn’t live them, as Grandma did. With Grandpa gone, those stories were the most important thing in her life and she told and retold them—to the point where she and my mother actually had words about it. “I’m sick of all that old-timy stuff!” Momma would exclaim. “Why don’t you quit talking about it all the time?” And Grandma would say, “Well, if you don’t care where you come from, I do!” And they might not speak for two or three days.
Fisher: Why didn’t your mother want to hear the stories?
Haley: She was the first person in our family who ever went to college. You see it in every poor immigrant group that’s come to this country; the first thing its members want to do as they begin to make it is to forget their homeland—its traditions and its culture—and to fit in with the new one. Momma wanted nothin’ to do with no Africans, and even less with slaves; she was embarrassed by all that. But to a little boy like me, it was just a bunch of stories, like the Biblical parables I heard every week in Sunday school at the New Hope Methodist Church. They were more exciting, of course, because some of the people in them were sitting right there on the porch. But most of the family they talked about—Tom Murray, Chicken George, Kizzy, the African—were just characters to me, like Jonah, Pharaoh, David and Goliath, Adam and Eve.
Fisher: When did the stories begin to mean something more to you?
Haley: It took about 30 years. I had grown up and gone to college for two years and then joined the Coast Guard as a mess boy not long before World War Two broke out. During the long months at sea, I passed the time by writing letters to everyone I knew—maybe 40 a week—and after a while, I caught the bug, and started writing for publication; or tried to. I spent eight years writing some part of every single day before making my first sale to a interviews. When I finally retired—as Chief Journalist—after 20 years, at 37, I moved to Greenwich Village, where I planned to make it as a free-lance journalist; I guess I thought I’d pick it up by osmosis, simply by living in that writers’ colony. But it didn’t come quite that easy. One day, I was down to exactly 18 cents and two cans of sardines when a friend called me with the offer of a modest but steady job in the civil service. I took a deep breath and turned him down. The very next day, a small check arrived in the mail from some interviews, and I managed to hang on long enough to begin selling regularly. Those two sardine cans and that 18 cents, by the way, are framed and hanging on my wall even to this day, as a reminder of how close I came to the end of the line. Anyway, it was around that time that you assigned me to conduct an interview for playboy.
Fisher: That was the very first interview we published, in September of 1962.
Haley: With Miles Davis. Which taught me a little bit about jazz as well as journalism. But my association with Malcolm X, the second interview you assigned to me, led to my collaboration with him on my first book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I remember his telling me very calmly, as he read the finished manuscript two years later, that he’d never live to see it published—and he was right.
In a way, I have playboy to thank for setting my second book, Roots, into motion, too. It was soon after the Malcolm book came out, and you asked me to interview Julie Christie, who was making a movie in London. While I was there, waiting for an appointment—which never came about, as you know—I kept myself busy taking guided tours of the city. One of them stopped at the British Museum, where I found something I’d heard about only vaguely but which now entranced me: the Rosetta stone. I immediately read up on it and learned that it had been found in the Nile delta in 1799, inscribed with three texts: one in Greek, the second in a then-unknown set of characters, the third in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, which it had been assumed no one would ever be able to decipher. But in a superhuman feat of scholarship, a Frenchman named Jean Champollion had matched the two unknown texts, character for character, with the Greek text and proved that all three were the same, thus cracking the code and opening up to the world much of mankind’s earliest history, which had been recorded in—and hidden behind—the mystery of those hieroglyphics.
Fisher: Why did all that fascinate you so?
Haley: I wasn’t sure. I felt that key which had unlocked a door to the past had some special significance for me, but I didn’t realize what it was until I was on the plane returning to the U.S. In the stories Grandma and the others had told me, there were fragments of words from an unknown tongue spoken by the African who said his name was Kin-tay, called a guitar a ko and a river Kamby Bolongo. They were mostly sharp, angular sounds with K predominating. Undoubtedly, they had undergone some changes in pronunciation as they had been passed down across the generations, but it seemed to me that they had to be phonetic snatches of the actual language spoken by my ancestor and that if I could find out what that language was, I might be able to unlock the door to my own past.
When I got home, I knew there was somebody I had to see. Of all the old ladies from the porch in Henning, only one was still alive: Cousin Georgia, who had been 20-odd years younger than the others. She was in her 80s now and living with her son, Floyd, and daughter, Bea, in Kansas City, Kansas. I hadn’t seen her in several years and she was ailing and bedridden, but the moment I mentioned my interest in the family stories, she jerked upright and started prattling away: “Yeah, boy, dat African say a guitar a ko and he call a river de Kamby Bolongo an’ he was out choppin’ wood, intendin’ to make hisself a drum when dey cotched ‘im.” It was like echoes of the stories I’d heard during my boyhood.
When I told her that I wanted to see if I could find out where Kin-tay came from, which might reveal the identity of our ancestral tribe, she became so excited that Floyd, Bea and I had trouble calming her down. And as I left, she told me something that galvanized me—something that has driven and sustained me ever since: “Boy, yo’ sweet granma and all of ’em—dey up dere, watchin’. So you go do what you got to do.”
Fisher: What did you do?
Haley: I soon discovered what I already feared: that because there was little tradition of family continuity among blacks, there were very sparse genealogical records of black families—certainly none of the kind that can enable some white families to trace their ancestors as far back as the Mayflower and across the Atlantic to wherever they came from. In the first place, newly arrived Africans were divested of their born names and given slave names—as Kin-tay had been renamed Toby. Thus were they robbed of their past, beginning a process of psychic dehumanization that was compounded with the frequent breeding of slaves like livestock and the sale of their offspring—often before birth. It was not uncommon for a slave to grow up without knowing his own father. Not many got to know their grandparents. For family stories to go back, as ours did, to great-great-great-great-grandparents was almost unheard of. But because there were no established avenues for corroborating those stories, I had to kind of start from scratch.
Fisher: Which was where?
Haley: Well, one day, while I was in Washington, D.C., on a interviews assignment, I went to the National Archives. Remembering that Grandma had said she was born on the Murray plantation in Alamance County, North Carolina, and figuring that the family had to have lived there around the time of the Civil War, I asked a black attendant for the census records of that county for the year 1870. They were on microfilm, and I threaded the first roll through the machine and began to turn the handle. There before me were columns of names in old-fashioned script, where the Ss look like Fs, and those people—head of household, wife, children, grandparents—began to parade past. The lists seemed endless, and by the end of the second roll, my curiosity was rapidly diminishing. The thought that I’d ever run across a familiar name among so many countless thousands seemed hopeless and I got up to leave. It gives me the quivers to think how, if I had left, none of this would ever have happened.
But as I was walking out, I passed through the genealogical-search room and I happened to notice that, unlike the reading rooms of most libraries, where people are sitting back relaxed and comfortable, everyone there was bent intently over old documents, some with magnifying glasses. And the thought came into my head: These people are all here trying to find out who they are. I turned around and went back to the microfilm room and picked up where I had left off. Some rolls later, as I was slowly turning the crank, I suddenly found myself looking down at the name “Murray, Tom, Blacksmith, Black,” and beneath that the name “Murray, Irene, Housewife, Black,” and beneath them the names of their children, Maria Jane, Ellen, Viney, Matilda and Elizabeth. Matilda was Aunt Till from Dyersburg. Elizabeth was Aunt Liz; I’d eaten her biscuits for years. They were Grandma’s older sisters; she hadn’t been born yet. I was staggered. To see those names right there in an official document in the same building that houses the U.S. Constitution somehow made it very real—and made it matter in a way it never had before. That thought gripped me—and still does. I had stumbled upon incontrovertible evidence that I, my family, we black people, indeed, did have a past, a heritage; it just wasn’t very well documented.
Fisher: So that challenged you to keep going?
Haley: It surely did. Between interviews assignments, I spent the next few months commuting to Washington from New York, searching in the National Archives and the Library of Congress for further confirmation of the family story, and slowly I found it. In bits and pieces. In time, I discovered that those old ladies on the porch had been incredibly accurate; they hadn’t known it, but they were oral historians of the highest order. Piece by piece, I began to fit it all together about everyone in the family—except for the African. There was simply nothing to be found anywhere about a slave named Kin-tay, and even if I could find some record of him under the name Toby, that wouldn’t help me find out where he came from. Slave traders were interested in the value of their property, not in its origin. I knew that those shreds of African words passed down by the African would have to be the key. If I had known then what I know now—that maybe 1000 tribal tongues are spoken in Africa—I would have given up on the spot. But since I didn’t know the odds against me, I forged blindly on.
Fisher: In what direction?
Haley: Well, it seemed logical to seek help from as wide a range of Africans as I could find, so I began to hang around the lobby of the UN Building in New York around quitting time. It wasn’t hard to spot the Africans. In the course of two weeks, I managed to buttonhole maybe two dozen of them. Everyone listened to me for a moment—and then took off. I couldn’t blame them much; what kind of impression could I make trying to blurt out some alleged African sounds in a Tennessee accent—sounds that very possibly might have been distorted beyond recognition across the 200 years they had taken to reach me?
Finally, I told my problem to a lifelong friend from Henning, George Sims, who happens to be a master researcher. He promptly went into the Library of Congress and shortly brought to me a list of people recognized for their knowledge of African linguistics. The credentials of one of them, a Belgian Ph.D. named Jan Vansina, impressed me so much that I called him for an appointment at the University of Wisconsin, where he was teaching. He had written a book, La Tradition Orale, based on research conducted while he was living in African villages. I thought he might be just the man to help me, if anyone could. And he gave me an appointment to meet with him in Madison.
Dr. Vansina listened intently as I told him my story—every syllable of the sounds, everything else I could remember, buttressed by what Cousin Georgia had recently told me. He was particularly interested in how the sounds were passed along from one generation to the next. I told him there had always been one person in each generation who was keeper of the story: First it was Kin-tay, then Kizzy, then George, then Tom, then my grandma Cynthia and, finally, me. When I was through talking, he said he wanted to sleep on it and invited me to spend the night.
Fisher: Did you get any sleep?
Haley: Not much. I didn’t think he would have asked me to stay unless he felt some good reason for it. The next morning at the breakfast table, he said to me, with a very serious expression on his face: “The ramifications of the phonetic sounds preserved down across your family’s generations could be immense.” My heart all but stopped. He said he had consulted by telephone with one of his colleagues, an eminent Africanist, Dr. Philip Curtin, who concurred with him that the sounds I’d conveyed were in the tongue spoken by the Mandinka, or Mandingo, people. The word ko, for example, he said, probably referred to the kora, one of the Mandinkas’ oldest stringed instruments. But the phrase Kamby Bolongo was what clinched it. Without question, he said, in Mandinka, the word bolongo meant a large, moving stream, such as a river, and preceded by Kamby, it probably referred to the Gambia River. Almost certainly, my African ancestor had been from the Gambia. I’d never heard of it.
Fisher: Did you say so?
Haley: I was too excited to hide my ignorance; so I asked and he showed it to me on a map—a small, narrow country about midway on the west coast of Africa, bordered on three sides by Senegal and bisected by the Gambia River. I was determined to go there, preferably on the next plane; but I couldn’t just pop up in Africa! I wouldn’t know where to go, whom to talk to or how to ask. I knew I had to find someone who knew more than I did about the Gambia, which was almost literally nothing.
Fisher: Another research job for Sims?
Haley: I didn’t have to ask him. As fate would have it, only a week or so later, I was asked to speak about my Malcolm X book at Utica College in Upstate New York; it was my first paid lecture. I got $100 for it, which would be about one tenth of my round-trip air fare to the Gambia. Afterward, talking with the professor who’d invited me to speak, I told him about my quest—and my plight—and he said he’d heard there was an outstanding student over at Hamilton College, about half an hour’s drive away, who came from the Gambia. I drove up there and fairly snatched him from a class in economics. His name was Ebou Manga and he was the blackest human being I had ever seen. He seemed reservedly amused as I poured out my story in a rush of words, but when I asked him to accompany me to the Gambia—at my expense—his face lit up and he said yes on the spot.
Fisher: How did you intend to finance that expedition?
Haley: I had no idea where I’d get the money for my own ticket, let alone his. But it fell into my lap like manna from heaven two weeks later, when you paid me for an interview. I’d already obtained a visa and the very next day, Ebou and I were off to Dakar, where we changed to a lighter plane and flew on to a small airfield in the Gambia. From there, we drove in a van the rest of the way along a rutted two-lane highway to the capital city of Banjul, which was then called Bathurst.
Ebou’s father, Alhaji Malik Manga—they are a Moslem family—soon arranged for me to meet with a group of men who were knowledgeable about their country’s history. So once again, I told my story. When I had finished, they seemed most interested in the name Kin-tay. “Our country’s oldest villages,” they told me, “tend to be named for the families that settled them centuries ago.” And on a map, they pointed out a village called Kinte-Kundah and, nearby, another called Kinte-Kundah Janneh-Ya. The Kinte clan—of which may ancestor was undoubtedly a member, they said—was an old and well-known family in the Gambia, and they promised to do what they could to find a griot to help me with my search.
Fisher: A griot?
Haley: I cocked my ear at that one, too. They said griots were oral historians, almost living archives, men trained from boyhood to memorize, preserve and recite—on ceremonial occasions—the centuries-old histories of villages, of clans, of families, of great kings, holy men and heroes. Some, they said, were the keepers of certain family stories so long that they could talk for three days without ever repeating themselves. When I expressed astonishment, they reminded me that every living person goes back ancestrally to some time when there was no writing, when the only way that human knowledge got passed from one generation to the next had been from the mouths of the elders to the ears of the young. We in the West, they said, had become so dependent on “the crutch of print” that we had forgotten what the memory of man was capable of.
Fisher: Did they find a griot for you?
Haley: Yes, but it took months. I returned home to await developments—and to devour everything I could find to read about Africa. It embarrasses me to think how ignorant I was about the people and the culture of the earth’s second-largest continent. Like most of us, black and white, I formed my impressions of Africa and of Africans mostly from Tarzan movies, Jungle Jim comics and occasional leafings through old copies of National Geographic. So from morning till evening, I pored over book after book about African history and culture, and every night, before I turned out the light, I studied a map of Africa I’d put beside my bed, memorizing the location of each country, its rivers and major cities.
Finally, a letter arrived from the Gambia, which I almost tore open. My contacts there had found a griot who might be able to help me, and they’d put me in touch with him if I would return at my earliest convenience. Man, I went nearly wild with excitement—and then frustration. Where would I find the money? I was ready to work my way across as a cook on a freighter—that had been my job for several years on U.S. Coast Guard cutters—when a last resort occurred to me. I wrote to Mrs. DeWitt Wallace, cofounder with her husband of Reader’s Digest. I had met her at a party several years before and she had said very kind things about an article I’d written for them. Told me to get in touch with her if I ever needed help. I figured she was just being polite, but I had nothing to lose, so I wrote her a letter. To my astonishment, Mrs. Wallace arranged for me to meet with a group of Digest editors to see what they felt about my project. I talked passionately and nonstop for about three hours, as if my life depended on it, and in some strange way, I felt it did. They came through—with a $300 monthly stipend and “reasonable necessary travel expenses.”
Fisher: Sounds like a dangerously ambiguous phrase. They didn’t know you very well, did they?
Haley: I guess not. But they do now—and I think they’ve forgiven me. Anyway, two days later, I was back in Banjul, tape recorder and notebook in hand, chafing to get to the griot they’d found for me. “His name,” they said, “is Kebba Kanji Fofana, and he is a griot of the Kinte clan.” I was ready to have a fit. “Where is he?” I asked, I suppose expecting to find him waiting somewhere nearby, flanked by a PR man and an interpreter. They looked at me quizzically. “He’s in Juffure, his village in the back country upriver,” they replied. If I intended to see him, it soon became clear. I’d have to do something I’d never dreamed I’d be doing: organize a kind of modified safari!
Fisher: The great black hunter?
Haley: You go straight to hell. This was totally serious business! It took me three days of bargaining and endless African palaver to assemble everything and everyone I was assured I couldn’t do without for the journey. By the time I’d hired a launch for the trip upriver, a lorry and a Land Rover to make the journey overland with provisions and a total of 14 companions, including three interpreters and four musicians—
Haley: I was told the old griots didn’t like to talk without musicians playing in the background. Anyway, by the time I got all that together, I felt like Stanley setting out in search of Livingstone. I tried to imagine the reaction back at the Digest accounting department in Pleasantville when they saw this item on my expense account.
Fisher: What did you find when you reached your destination?
Haley: You’ve heard of the expression peak experience? That’s what I had in Juffure. We put ashore at a little village called Albreda and set out across hot, lush savanna country, and finally we were approaching Juffure’s bamboo fence, beyond a grove of trees. Little children playing outside ran in to announce our arrival, and by the time we entered the gate, everyone in the village—about 70 people, plus maybe half as many goats –had converged on us from mud huts. Among them was a small, wizened man in an off-white robe and a pillbox hat; somehow he looked important and I knew he was the griot we had come to see and hear.
The interpreters left our group to talk with him and the other villagers swarmed around me, three and four deep all around, and began to stare. For the first time in my life, every face I saw was jet-black. And the eyes of every one were raking me from head to toe. As my own eyes dropped in embarrassment, my glance happened to fall on my hands. I felt ashamed.
Haley: It was the color of my skin—because I wasn’t black, I was brown, the product of forced interbreeding under slavery; I felt impure among the pure. Finally, one of the interpreters came over and whispered in my ear, “They stare at you because they have never here seen a black American.” They had been looking at me not as me, Alex Haley, an individual, but as a symbol for them of a people—25,000,000 of us black people—whom they had never seen, a people who lived in a land beyond the ocean, as unknown to them as they were to us.
Just then, the old griot turned from the other interpreters, strode through the crowd and stopped in front of me, his eyes piercing into mine. Seeming to feel that I would understand his Mandinka, he looked straight at me as he spoke, then fell silent while the translation came: “We have been told by the forefathers that there are many of us from this place who are in exile in that place called America. . . .” With that, he sat down on a stool across from me, the people gathered round and he began to recite the ancestral history of the Kinte clan. This was a state occasion, an extremely formal and stylized ritual that dated back unchanged far into antiquity. As he spoke, he leaned forward, his body rigid, and the words would issue from deep within him, like a solid thing, as if carved in stone. After two or three sentences, he would stop, sit back—his eyes seeming opaque, his expression unreadable—and wait for the translation. Then, as if summoning all his strength, he’d lean forward and begin again.
Fisher: Were you tape-recording all this?
Haley: Indeed, I was, along with the background chatter of monkeys, parrots, goats, chickens, children, and the like. But you could hear him droning through it all. Even in translation, it sounded much like Biblical recitation: So-and-so took unto himself the wife So-and-so and by her he begat . . . and begat. . . . He was talking about people and events 150 or 200 years ago—who married whom, their children in their order of birth, then whom those children married and their children, and so on.
Fisher: How long did that go on?
Haley: For about two hours, there under a broiling sun, bathed in sweat, buzzing with flies. I’ll just sum his story up a briefly as I can. The Kinte clan, the griot said, began back in the 1500s in a land called Old Mali. After many years, a branch of the clan moved to Mauretania and, from there, one son, Kairaba Kunte Kinte, a Marabout—or holy man of the Moslem faith—traveled south to the Gambia, where he eventually settled in the village of Juffure. There he took his first wife, a Mandinka maiden named Sireng, by whom he begat two sons, Janneh and Saloum. He then took a second wife, Yaisa, by whom he begat a third son, Omoro. When Omoro had 30 rains, he took a wife named Binta Kebba, by whom he begat four sons, named Kunta, Lamin, Suwadu and Madi. Here the griot added one of the many time-fixing references in the narrative that is how they identify the date of events: “It was about the time the king’s soldiers came. . . .” Then, as he had done perhaps 50 times earlier in the course of his monolog, he added a salient biographical detail about one of the people he was discussing: “The eldest of these four sons, Kunta, went away from this village to chop wood—and he was never seen again.”
Well, I sat there feeling as if I were carved of rock. What that old man in back-country Africa had just uttered dovetailed with the very words my grandmother had always spoken during my boyhood on a porch in Tennessee, telling a story she had heard from her father, Tom, who had heard it from his father, George, who had heard it from his mother, Kizzy, who had been told by her father, the man who called himself Kintay: that he had been out, not far from his village, chopping wood, intending to make himself a drum, when he had been set upon by four men and kidnaped into slavery.
Fisher: How did you respond?
Haley: I must have looked as if lightning had struck me, because the griot stopped midsentence and leaned toward me with concern and bewilderment. Somehow, from my duffel bag, I managed to pull out the notebook in which I had recorded that very passage of the family story, as Cousin Georgia had retold it to me at her bedside in Kansas City. When the interpreter read what was written there, it was all he could do to control himself sufficiently to translate it. The griot’s eyes shot wide and he leaped up, exclaiming loudly to the others while jabbing at my notebook with his forefinger. A shock wave seemed to go through the crowd, and without an order being given, every one of those 70 people—man, woman and child—formed a giant human ring around me and began chanting rhythmically, moving counterclockwise, lifting their knees high, stamping up reddish puffs of dust. Then a woman holding a baby to her breast burst from the circle and came charging toward me, scowling fiercely, and thrust her child toward me almost roughly in a gesture that said, “Take it!” No sooner had I clasped it to my chest than she snatched it away and another woman was pushing her baby into my arms, followed by another and another—until, in a couple of minutes, I’d say I had embraced a dozen babies.
Fisher: What did all that mean?
Haley: I had no idea. I was too dazed to do anything but stand there. It wasn’t until a year later that I was told by Dr. Jerome Bruner at Harvard, ironically enough, that I had been participating in one of the oldest ceremonies of human-kind, the laying on of hands. They were telling me in their way, he said, “Through this flesh, which is us, we are you and you are us.”
I don’t remember much of what happened after that—except for a photo that was taken of me standing with several of my sixth cousins, direct lineal descendants of Kunta Kinte’s younger brothers. And when we left a few hours later by Land Rover, my mind was still numb. As we careened down the pitted back-country road toward Banjul—dust pluming up behind us—I saw nothing, heard nothing, felt nothing around me. But in my mind’s eye, from the journals I had been reading, I began to envision, almost as if it were a film, how my great-great-great-great-grandfather—and the ancestors of every single black alive—had been enslaved. I could hear their screams in the night, see the flames from torches licking at their thatch-roofed huts, hear their screams as they dashed outside into a rain of clubs and cutlasses wielded not only by white slave traders but also by traitorous fellow Africans who were in the hire of the whites. I could smell the blood and sweat as the survivors were linked neck to neck by thongs into processions—called coffles—which often were a mile in length before they reached the beach areas near where the slave ships waited.
I seemed to feel their horror as they were branded, greased, shaved, then lashed and dragged, screaming, clawing at the beach, biting up mouthfuls of sand, in their desperation for one last hold on the land that had been their home. I saw them thrown like firewood into long-boats and rowed out to the waiting slave ships, shoved and beaten down into stinking holds and chained onto rough wooden shelves. I heard their moans as the ships weighed anchor and they began to move down the river toward the sea.
My mind was still reeling with this nightmare vision when we came in sight of a village up ahead. The driver slowed down as we drew closer, for there were hundreds of people waiting, and every one of them waving and shouting.
Fisher: What was going on?
Haley: Somehow, word had reached them of what had happened back in Juffure. As the Land Rover crept through the throng, their cacophony of shouting engulfed us. And the face of everyone—from robed elders to naked little boys to wrinkled old crones with toothless gums and breasts like belt straps—was wreathed in a smile. I found myself standing up and smiling and waving back; but it wasn’t until we were about halfway through the village that I understood what it was they were all chanting: “Meester Kinte! Meester Kinte!”
Let me tell you something: I’ve never been considered overly emotional, but when I heard what those people were shouting, I threw my hands in front of my face and started to sob like I hadn’t done since I was a baby.
I was weeping in grief—not only for the anguish of the ancestor I embodied for those cheering Africans but also for the suffering of his descendants down through the generations. But I was also weeping in joy, for I felt that through me, his great-great-great-great-grandson, Kunta Kinte had finally come home. And because of him—his courage, his pride, and the tenacity of his determination to keep alive the memory and the meaning of his roots as a free man in his own land—all of us who had come after him had finally rediscovered who we were.
Fisher: Seems like a good subject for a book.
Haley: That’s right, wise guy. When I arrived in New York, I went to Doubleday and told them that every black American goes back ancestrally to someone who was taken, as Kunta was, from some village, chained in the hold of some stinking ship, sold onto some plantation to live out his years in slavery—and had children whose children’s children’s children are still struggling for freedom. So the story of any one of us is really the saga of us all. I told them I wanted to write that story in a book called Roots. They told me to go ahead.
Fisher: Did you visit Cousin Georgia to tell her the news?
Haley: Listen, let me tell you one of the major reasons why I feel that this book Roots was simply meant to be. Just before leaving on that second trip to Africa, I had visited old Cousin Georgia, who was in the hospital, recovering from a stroke, and in her dramatic, deeply religious way, she’d exclaimed to me as I prepared to leave: “Boy, I’m jes’ a soldier on God’s battlefield, an’ I been hit! But you go on!” But now, when I came off the plane and telephoned my brother George, he interrupted my greeting to tell me that while I was gone, Cousin Georgia had died—at the age of 83. Later, after making time-zone calculations, I realized that she had passed away literally within the very hour of my arrival in Juffure. I truly believe that as the last survivor of those ladies who had told the family story on that porch in Henning, it had been Cousin Georgia’s job to oversee me into our ancestral village—and then she’d joined the others up there watchin’.
Fisher: Did that inspire you to go on?
Haley: That, combined with the mystical nature of my entire experience in the Gambia, filled me with a sense of mission and fired me with an obsessive passion I have felt ever since.
Fisher: Where did that passion drive you next?
Haley: Before I knew where to go next, I had to piece together what I’d learned so far, like clues in a detective story. From what the old ladies on the porch had told me, the ship that brought the African across the ocean had landed at “Naplis,” which had to be Annapolis, Maryland. And now I knew that the ship had to have sailed from the Gambia River. What I didn’t know were the only things that really mattered. What ship? And what voyage?
Fisher: How did you manage to track them down?
Haley: The griot had told me that Kunta had disappeared “about the time the king’s soldiers came.” Projecting backward six generations to Kunta, that must have been somewhere in the mid-18th Century. And since slavery was first and foremost a maritime industry conducted predominantly by England and her American colony, I figured there might be a record somewhere in London of a military expedition to the Gambia around that time. I was right. After weeks of digging among British parliamentary records, I discovered that a group called Colonel O’Hare’s forces had been dispatched to protect Fort James on the Gambia River from attack by the French in the spring of 1767.
So now I knew approximately when Kunta’s ship left. Somewhere among the many thousands of voyages logged in shipping records during the two centuries that the slave trade flourished, there must be the record of a voyage by some ship from the Gambia River to Annapolis in the spring of 1767.
Fisher: Where did you look?
Haley: I soon discovered that various repositories here or there in London held a maze of old shipping records, some dating back to the 16th Century; and included were countless records of slave ships. Hardly pausing to eat or sleep, I breathed dust and squinted over yellowing records for nine hours a day every day for the next seven weeks. Finally, in the British Public Records Office one afternoon, I was about halfway down a list of 30-odd sailings in my 1023rd set of records when my finger traced a line that read: “Lord Ligonier, registered in London, Captain Davies, sailed from the Gambia River July 5, 1767, destination Annapolis”—with a cargo that included 140 Africans.
Fisher: What was your reaction?
Haley: For some reason, it didn’t seem to register right away. I jotted down the information, stuck it in my pocket and went next door for a cup of tea. I was just sort of sitting there, sipping away, when it hit me. I still owe the lady for that tea. Without even stopping off at my hotel to pick up my bag, I grabbed a taxi, told the driver, “Heathrow!” and got the last seat on that day’s last flight to New York. All the way across the Atlantic, I could see it in my mind’s eye—a book I’d come across several months before in the Library of Congress: Shipping in the Port of Annapolis, 1748-1775. Before I slept, I was going to have my hands on that book. And I did. Turning to ship arrivals starting in September 1767—allowing at least two months for the crossing—I found it in ten minutes: The Lord Ligonier had docked in the Port of Annapolis on September 29, 1767. In the Maryland Hall of Records, I looked up ship arrivals for that date, and there was the cargo manifest for the Lord Ligonier. On it were listed “3265 elephants’ teeth, 3700 pounds of beeswax, 800 pounds of raw cotton, 32 ounces of gold and 98 Negro slaves.” Forty-two had died en route.
Fisher: Almost a third. Wasn’t that an incredibly high fatality rate?
Haley: It was about average. The slaves on the Lord Ligonier were stowed “loose pack,” as they called it, on their backs, shoulder to shoulder, on shelves. When they were shipped “tight pack”—on their sides, up against one another like spoons in a drawer—the death rate was even higher.
Fisher: Then why would they be shipped that way?
Haley: The reasoning was that since more slaves could be fitted on board tight pack, the ship still might arrive with more salable merchandise alive.
Fisher: What was the cause of most of the deaths?
Haley: Disease and debilitation, from being forced to lie in their own excrement and vomit, chained together at the wrists and ankles on shelves four or five deep for an average of two and a half months. After a few weeks—bitten by rats, infested with lice, often bloated with tape-worms ingested in tainted slop, rolling back and forth on the rough planks beneath them—they were a mass of ulcerated and often gangrenous wounds so deep, in some cases, that muscle and bone showed through. Some died of beatings; others were killed in insurrections; and a few threw themselves overboard to the sharks rather than wait to get eaten in Toubabo-Koomi, the land of white cannibals to which many thought they were being taken. What’s surprising is not that so many died but that so many survived the nightmare.
It’s ironic that, percentagewise, more whites than blacks died on the slave ships. The Lord Ligonier left Gravesend, England, with a full crew of 36 and arrived in Annapolis with 18. Whites were less resistant than blacks to many diseases, but most fell victim to the same afflictions that killed their captives; every week or so, the crew members had to scrub off the slaves and muck out the holds.
Fisher: Were they well paid for that kind of work?
Haley: On the contrary, the crewmen earned around two or three shillings a day—if they lived to earn anything. The fewer of the crew to survive the journey, the fewer of them had to be paid. More crew members than slaves died from floggings by brutal captains and mates; they were recruited—in some cases, shanghaied—human dregs of the waterfront and were regarded as far less valuable than their black cargo.
Shipowners and the great insurance companies that bank-rolled the trade found it enormously profitable, however. Nor did the slave-ship captains do badly, either. In fact, they earned far more doing that sort of dirty work than they ever could have done at the helm of a warship or a tea clipper. Most of them were castoffs from military service or trading lines, competent sailors who had been disgraced or dishonorably discharged for drunkenness, insubordination, and so on. They had to earn a living at the only thing they knew—the sea—and it was a lucrative one. But many of them seemed to be ashamed of it. I learned in my research that some of our favorite hymns were written by retired slave-ship officers. Amazing Grace, for example, was written by an ex-first mate named John Newton. The familiar line “I once was lost but now am found” takes on a poignant new significance in that light.
Fisher: How did you find out about all this?
Haley: By reading scores of slave journals, captains’ memoirs and especially the records of the antislavery society. One of the most revealing tidbits I unearthed in this way was the fact that the surest mark of veteran slave-ship captains and mates was the number of human teethmark scars they carried on their lower legs—sustained while doing their job, which was to keep as many slaves as possible from dying, and to patch them up well enough to command a decent price on delivery.
Fisher: What sort of price would an average slave command?
Haley: That would depend on the state of the market at the time, but the principal determining factors were obviously age, strength and health. The tribe a slave came from also sometimes made a difference to knowledgeable buyers. The Wolofs, who were quick, intelligent, natural leaders but proud and defiant, tended to sell for less than members of other tribes that were regarded as more tractable and hard-working. In 1767, an average field hand in prime shape was worth anywhere from $500 to $800. Though they weren’t capable of the same kind of hard work, female slaves often commanded more than $1000, especially if they were young and attractive, because they could both provide pleasant diversion for their masters and increase their inventory of human livestock by breeding children.
Fisher: Were you able to discover Kunta Kinte’s sale price?
Haley: About $850 is my best guess, based upon then prevailing prices in the Maryland and Virginia area. But I found a specific record of when and where he was sold. In the microfilm records of the Maryland Gazette for October 1, 1767—two days after the Lord Ligonier docked—I found an advertisement in the far-left-hand column on page two, announcing its arrival and inviting interested parties to an auction in Annapolis three days thence of its cargo: “98 choice, healthy slaves.”
Fisher: Was there any written record of those sold at the auction?
Haley: Not that I could find. But I already knew who had bought Kunta, if the family story continued to prove as accurate as it had so far. Grandma had said Kunta had been sold to a “Massa John Waller,” who named him Toby, and later, after his foot had been cut off, he had been sold to John’s brother, Dr. William Waller, who put him to work in the garden at his plantation in Spotsylvania County, Virginia.
Since slaves were considered property, just like a horse or a plot of real estate, I reasoned that there might possibly be a record of Kunta’s sale from one brother to the other somewhere among the state legal deeds on file in Richmond. So I began searching through those documents, starting a few months after his original purchase, to allow time for his four unsuccessful escape attempts. Finally, I found a deed—dated September 5, 1768—transferring 247 acres of land from John to William Waller. On the second page, like an afterthought, were the words: “And also one Negro slave named Toby.” I sat staring at the document, unable to believe my eyes. It was impossible, but I’d done it: traced a man who had been dead for almost two centuries all the way from his village in western Africa to a plantation in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. I felt like leaping up and shouting back across the years to Grandma and the rest of the ladies on that porch: “It’s true! It’s all true! Every word of it! It really happened just the way you said! We’ve found him!” One less detail in the family story, one missing document in my search to confirm it, and the trail could have petered out anywhere along the way. Somehow, just enough fragments had survived from what the African had told Kizzy, and what she and the others had passed on down through the generations, to lead me finally, there in that Virginia library, all the way back to my great-great-great-great-grandfather.
Fisher: Were you ready to begin writing the book?
Haley: Hardly. I had traced my own ancestor all the way from freedom in the Gambia to slavery in Virginia, and I knew the outlines of the family story pretty well from that point on. But if Roots was going to stand a chance of transcending the story of one family and becoming the saga of an entire people, I knew I’d have to find out what it had been like not only for Kunta Kinte and his descendants but for millions like them on both continents from that time to this. I felt my job now was to immerse myself in research on two vast areas: tribal life in Africa and slave life in America. Since Africa’s where the story began, I decided to study it first.
Most of what I’d read so far had been written by outsiders, predominantly white missionaries and anthropologists, and even among the most knowledgeable and well intentioned of them, the tone was somewhat paternal and condescending. Their insights and observations were inevitably limited by the cultural chasm separating them from their subjects. So I began going back to Africa, maybe 15 or 20 trips. Setting out with my interpreters into the back country, I’d arrive in a village with a gift of kola nuts or something and ask to speak with the most honored elders. And I’d sit for hours with three or four of those old men, asking them about their boyhoods—and about whatever they could recall their fathers telling them about their boyhoods. I was digging not only for firsthand cultural history but also for personal anecdotes that would illuminate the lifestyle and the character of these people; sensory impressions of taste, touch, smell and sight that would help me bring the story to life in a way that the reader could not only appreciate but at least vicariously experience.
Fisher: How much of what you learned conflicted with your preconceptions about Africa?
Haley: Most of it. The worst misconception I had—in common with most Americans—was conditioned by the cartoon image of Africans as semisimians with bones through their noses, swinging from trees and dancing around fires over which missionaries were cooking in big pots. What I found out about my own ancestors, the Mandinkas—a fairly representative tribe among the thousands in Africa—was that they were a poor people, most of them simple farmers at the mercy of the harsh elements of western Africa, which range from flood to famine. They live in what we would consider primitive conditions, and during the hungry season they sometimes eat rodents and even insects to stay alive. But they are a highly civilized and sophisticated people who are brought up to be aware of, and proud of, a rich cultural heritage, and they have a deep respect for the value of all life. Most are devout Moslems, the men are literate in Arabic and not only conversant in their own language but schooled from childhood in Koranic recitation.
Conditioned as I was to think of Africans as savages, I was deeply moved when I learned about the age-old Mandinka ritual of child naming, which is still practiced in the back country. On the eighth day of his life, a newborn child is brought out before the people of his village in his mother’s arms and held up before his father, who whispers three times into the infant’s ear the name he has chosen; it’s the first time that child’s name has ever been spoken aloud, because the Mandinka people believe that each human being should be the first to know who he is. That night, the naming ritual is completed when the father takes his child out beyond the village gates and holds the infant above him with his little face turned toward the heavens. “Behold,” says the father, “the only thing greater than yourself.” As a black American, brought up to regard myself as second-class at best, my knowledge now of that simple ancestral declaration has profoundly changed the way I feel about my value as a human being.
Fisher: How long did it take you to collect that kind of firsthand research?
Haley: Perhaps four years; then another six months organizing it into dozens of notebooks, including one for each year of Kunta’s life in Africa, distributing every shred of information I’d been able to find on everything from weapons to kitchen utensils, from morning prayers to evening campfires, from birth to death, into what I feel is as comprehensive and authentic a profile of African cultural life as has ever been assembled.
Fisher: Were you as meticulous in researching the slave life in America?
Haley: Maybe more so. It certainly took longer. There was hardly anybody to talk with who had direct experience of the period I was interested in, and the culture itself, unlike that of back-country Africa, had changed beyond recognition. So I had to rely almost entirely on reading. Digging long and deep in sources that had the ring of validity, finally I unearthed solid material—out of antebellum memoirs, diaries, personal correspondence, and the like, by slavemasters and mistresses; out of the Library of Congress, the Library of the D.A.R., the Widener Library at Harvard, the New York City Library’s Schomberg Collection in Harlem, the Moreland Collection at Howard University, the Fisk University and Morehouse College libraries, and a good twoscore other specialized source places—my quest, my mission, being to get at the truth of slavery. I read the works of prominent ex-slaves such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Phillis Wheatley, an African girl who grew up to become a celebrated poet. But the most invaluable—and heartbreaking—research I used in the book was gleaned from the transcripts of several hundred interviews with completely unknown ex-slaves that had been conducted by unemployed writers as a WPA project during the Thirties. Many of them are in a book titled Lay My Burden Down, which I recommend to anyone interested in the true and terrible story of slavery as told by its last survivors.
From all this reading, I finally amassed a staggering mound of research, which I then began to condense and classify into a second set of dawn-to-dusk, life-to-death, A-to-Z notebooks that constitutes, I think, a portrait of plantation America at least as exhaustive—and fully as authentic—as my research on tribal Africa.
Fisher: Did what you found out about slave life in the South force you to revise any more preconceptions?
Haley: Many—but most of them, I’m happy to say, weren’t my own. The worst of them, of course, was the popular white stereotype of slaves as ignorant woolly-heads who grinned and shuffled around the plantation with nothing on their minds but sex and watermelon; a lot of whites still think that way about us. But the fact is that most slaves were innately as smart as their masters, and not a few who got the chance at freedom and an education went on to excel in those fields they were allowed to enter.
But there wasn’t a single slave who wasn’t smart enough to lull white folks into thinking he was ignorant. As long as they were thought to be dumb, they’d pretty much be left alone. What whites seldom realized was that through a highly effective grapevine, nearly every slave out in the cotton fields learned in minutes just about everything that went on in the “big house,” even behind closed doors. House slaves eavesdropped on most words their masters and mistresses spoke; they suckled babies, changed the bed sheets, fed their owners and then emptied their slop jars. Yet their masters knew next to nothing about them.
Fisher: What about the old stereotype that slaves were lazy and shiftless? Did your research shed any light on that?
Haley: The facts are that they were worked very hard six days a week, usually from dawn till long after dark. House slaves, of course, didn’t have the same kind of backbreaking responsibilities as those who worked in the fields; some of them, in fact, grew close to their white owners and enjoyed special privileges, rather like house pets. But field slaves were worked sometimes until they literally dropped dead. It’s not surprising that they took every chance they could get to lighten up whenever they thought the overseer’s back was turned; or that after emancipation, they tilled the same land with more dedication as sharecroppers than they had as slaves.
Fisher: Didn’t the special treatment accorded to house slaves alienate them from field slaves?
Haley: It didn’t exactly create a bond between them, but more important than the fact that one group sweated in the fields while the other wore starched uniforms, fanned the “missy” with ostrich feathers and ate leftovers from the master’s dinner table was the fact that they all recognized they were enslaved together. If any of them showed the slightest disrespect toward any white—or was even suspected of it—they’d all suffer the same consequences.
Fisher: What kind of consequences?
Haley: Beatings were administered regularly by overseers, and often by white lay-abouts who happened onto slaves out alone on the road or in town. But all kinds of unimaginable cruelties were commonplace, for the most capricious pretexts. Ears were cut off for eavesdropping and hands for stealing, genitals for real or imagined evidence of any untoward interest in a white woman.
A particularly sadistic case among the hundreds I documented in my research was about an attractive young slave girl who had been raped by her master. When he died, his wife, who had been forced—like so many plantation wives—to endure in silence the humiliation of his infidelity, took a poker and beat the girl nearly to death: broke her jaw in several places, put out an eye, disfigured her for life.
But the atrocity I remember most vividly was the chopping off of Kunta Kinte’s foot by those poor-white “pate-rollers” who caught him after his fourth attempt to escape. I found myself morbidly obsessed with it. Over and over in my mind’s eye, I watched as Kunta, bound by his waist to a tree, struggled vainly to escape as his right foot was tied firmly across a stump. I saw the ax flash up, then down. I heard the thud, the horrible scream, saw his hands flail downward, as if to retrieve the front half of his foot as it fell forward, gouts of blood jetting from the stump. It was like a recurrent nightmare; I could see it, hear it. But I couldn’t feel it. Finally, after studying the physiology of the foot. I began to internalize the agony he must have felt as the ax sliced through skin, tendons, muscles, blood vessels and bone and thudded finally onto the stump. Only then did I feel that I could write about it. And only when I did was I able to purge myself of the obsession.
Fisher: In Roots, you describe another attempt to empathize with the sufferings of your ancestor, when, boarding a freighter bound, as the Lord Ligonier had been, from western Africa to America, you spent every night of the crossing stripped to your shorts, lying on the rough planking of the dark hold. Did that help you lose yourself in the character—and his ordeal?
Haley: I don’t know. My discomfort, of course, was sheer luxury compared with what he went through. I felt I had to do something to make it more real for me, but lying there night after night seemed to drive me deep inside myself, instead of him. I couldn’t seem to get inside his skin so that he could cry out, through me, the agony he had endured. And that agonized me. But even beyond that, I felt myself sinking into despair over my inadequacy to the task I had undertaken, at my effrontery in taking it upon myself to tell the saga of an entire people. I had been working on the book for years. I was beginning to think I’d never finish. Finally, one night, I found myself standing at the aft rail of the ship, looking back at the waves behind us, and very slowly, not with despair but with a sense of exhilaration, it began to dawn on me that the solution to all my problems lay just one step before me. All I had to do was slip between the rails and drop into the sea that had been my home for 20 years; it would only be fitting that the birthplace of my career as a writer would be my burying place as well. It would all be over and I could join the others up there—Jesus!—watching me at that rail about to bury forever the past they had sent me out to find. So help me, God. I began to hear their voices talking to me—Grandma, Tom, Chicken George, Kizzy and Kunta Kinte—and they were all saying quietly. “Don’t do it, son. Go on. Have faith. You’re gonna make it.” With all my strength, I pushed myself back from that rail and crawled on my hands and knees back across the deck to the companionway. And that night, in my cabin, I sobbed my guts out. After that, when I sat down at my typewriter and began to write, it flowed, it poured out of me like lava, the whole story of the slave-ship cruise, and I hope it hurts to read it as much as it did to write it.
Fisher: In your zeal to relive the story so totally, did it occur to you that you might be getting carried away by it?
Haley: I knew I was getting carried away. I was lost in it, hopelessly in love with it. In the single-mindedness of my determination to track down every lead that might take me to something I thought I had to know or feel. I went days at a time without food, nights without sleep, months without touching a woman. Carrying every scrap of research I’d collected along with me in a pair of very heavy satchels that never left my side, I traveled maybe half a million miles, interviewed hundreds of people, read hundreds of books, pored over thousands of documents in more than 70 archives on three continents. I could have gone on that way forever, never satisfied that I’d learned quite enough, always hoping that tomorrow I’d stumble across one more piece of evidence that I couldn’t do without.
Fisher: What stopped you?
Haley: I simply ran out of two basic commodities: time and money. I was exactly four years behind my deadline for delivery of the manuscript, and though no one knew it, except you, I’d actually written only the African section and the slave-ship crossing. The eternal optimist, I would always convince myself that I’d be able to sit down and grind out the rest in six months of 18-hour days at the typewriter. But then I’d run out of money—I’d lost all of my credit cards and friends to borrow from—and I’d have to stop work on the book entirely for weeks at a time to go on the lecture circuit, talking about the book, to earn enough money to get back to it for a few more months. I must have spoken before more than a million people about “My Search for Roots” over a period of several years, and people were beginning to say that the book was just a shuck to get me lecture bookings. Even friends like you, who knew better, began to lose patience with me.
Fisher: But not faith.
Haley: Well, yours lasted longer than mine. Finally, in exasperation, my attorney, Lou Blau, told me, in so many words, to just stop runnin’ my mouth about it, take the research I had—which was enough for ten books by then—get off on some desert island somewhere and write the goddamn thing. I swore I would and promised—for the last time—to deliver it in six months; Doubleday gave me some money to live on until then. Squirreling myself away in a remote hilltop cottage in Jamaica, West Indies—beyond the reach of telephones—I sat down to do just that.
But as the months passed, I found that mail and telegrams were managing to find me—and nearly every one seemed to be an announcement from some collection agency that I’d better pay up or else; or a command from the IRS. It was hard to find a single creditor who was willing to accept my honest explanation that all those debts had accumulated—and couldn’t be paid off yet—because of my desperate efforts to research and then write an important but seemingly interminable book. What with one thing or another, when I sat down and figured out what I owed various people and institutions, it was a total of around $100,000, including late charges, and just realizing that had what you might charitably call a deterrent effect on my creative output. If I didn’t find a few bones to throw to the biggest and hungriest of those wolves howling at my door, I knew I wouldn’t have a typewriter to finish the book on or a roof to do it under.
Fisher: Since you did finish, you must have found a few bones. Where?
Haley: I did something I’m not proud of, but if it hadn’t worked, I’d be even less proud of it. With just a few days left before my six months were up—knowing that I’d need at least another six months to finish—I wrote the first 20 pages of the next section of the book, polishing each and every word until it gleamed, and also the last few pages of the book, where I tell everybody what it all means. I didn’t really have any idea what it all meant at that point, but I made up something that sounded good, and then I typed up about 750 pages of my research to the same margins, stuck them between the first 20 and the last few pages, numbered them all in sequence, put a big rubber band around the whole thing, stuck it in a satchel and took the next plane to New York, arriving in the office of my editor, Lisa Drew, exactly on deadline day.
Sitting at Lisa’s desk, chitchatting for the first five or ten minutes, I could see her glance fastened hypnotically on that satchel at my side, so at the appropriate moment, I opened it up, pulled out this massive manuscript and set it before her on the desk. Her eyes narrowed warily as I explained that it was still just a rough draft but that I’d brought it along to reassure her that I was making progress. Then she began to read the first page, then the second and the third, and she began to smile, wider and wider. But when she kept on turning pages, I started talking and kept talking, faster and faster, asking so many questions that she finally began just skimming and then riffling around page 15. Then, as I knew she would from long acquaintance, she turned to the last page and read it carefully. I’d really poured it on at the end, and when she looked up, it was with moist eyes and a tremulous smile.
While she was still in a tender mood, I apologized abjectly for letting her down once again, after crying wolf so many times. All the more so because I would have to ask her one last time for another six-month extension—and another modest advance on my royalties, just enough to buy groceries, pay the electric bill and keep me in typing paper until I’d put the final polish on the manuscript. Flinching, sighing, but obviously impressed by the apparent existence of a rough draft for a book she had just about decided she’d never see, she authorized a check—for considerably less than I’d asked for, of course—and sincerely wished me good luck and Godspeed. And a warning that this was the last penny I’d see until the final draft was in her hands exactly six months from that day.
Fisher: Was it?
Haley: Delivered on time or the last penny I saw?
Haley: Neither. One way or another, I managed to eke out enough of both time and money to finally finish the book—about a year later—but not without pulling one last shameless ruse. The last 100 pages of the manuscript, which I turned in to Doubleday as finished copy only five days after the final, final deadline—when I was told bricks would begin to tumble from the roof of the Doubleday building—were actually a kind of novelized synopsis of the actual copy I intended to write while the manuscript was being typeset. When I received the galleys for correction about a month later, I simply substituted my 200 new pages for the last 100 pages they had set in type. They fumed, of course, but it was incomparably better than the original version. I offered to pay for the cost of resetting—hoping they’d have the kindness to turn me down, which they did, since they knew I’d have to ask them for another advance to do it. But as things are turning out, it looks as if neither Doubleday nor I will have to hassle over the printing bills.
Fisher: Or any other bills, it would appear, since Roots seems destined to become the best seller of the season—and perhaps, when the 12-hour television adaptation debuts at the end of this month, one of the best sellers of all time. After all those years of dodging creditors, how do you feel about the prospect of becoming a millionaire?
Haley: Well, I still owe enough money that it’ll be a while before I see a dollar without somebody else’s fingers attached to it. But when it starts rolling in, I’m pretty sure I’ll prefer it to poverty. The main thing I look forward to is being able to go to the mailbox and find a few checks in it instead of a pile of window envelopes with notes inside that begin: “Final notice: If you fail to call this number within 24 hours….” Apart from that, and the creative independence it’ll buy for me, the only reason I’m really excited about making some money is so I can fix up my back yard and maybe get me a nice stereo system for the living room. That’s about it.
Fisher: Will you laugh all the way to the bank over some of the criticisms that have faulted Roots for having a “pulpy style that smacks of conventional romance”; for your reliance on the use of a slave dialect that becomes “wearing and ludicrous”; for devoting too much of the book to Kunta’s “boring” life in Africa, which one reviewer found, “for all its troubles, a primal Eden”; and for glossing over the more recent generations of your family in “a hasty, sketchy, unsatisfactory way”?
Haley: When almost all of the reviews received by a book are as admiring, and in some cases adulatory, as those written about Roots, you’ve got to expect your share of pot shots from some quarters. They roll off. But if you want me to comment on the specific criticisms you mentioned, I’ll be glad to. As for my pulpy style, I’d rather describe it as I intended it to be: simple, direct, descriptive, dramatic—a style well suited to the story it tells, I think: and many other reviewers seem to feel as I do. The use of slave dialect, too, is not only intentional but authentic: some critics may find it ludicrous, but the fact is that that’s the way those people talked. Should I have made them speak the king’s English like their white owners? Differences in language were both symbolic and symptomatic of the vast gulf between slave and master. The reason I devoted the first 126 pages of the book to Kunta’s life in Africa, which some critics found both long and boring, was that so little has been known up to now in the West, by white or black, about the depth and richness of African culture, which I happen to think we can all learn something from. I also wanted to plant Kunta’s roots so deep, as I told the story of his life from birth to capture, that the wrench of his being torn from the soil of his homeland would be as heartbreaking for the reader as it was for me. As for depicting Juffure as a primal Eden, maybe it was, and still is, in many ways, compared with America’s urban jungles: but I certainly made no attempt to romanticize the harsh realities of tribal life in western Africa.
Fisher: How about the criticism that the book glosses over the more recent generations of your family?
Haley: I’d be inclined to agree with that one. I wish I’d had another year or even two to flesh out the lives and characters of Tom Murray and his family and all the others who came after them, all the way down to me, as I had been able to do with the rest of the book—from Kunta and Kizzy through Chicken George. The latter part of the story is just as rich as all that went before, and maybe someday I’ll have the chance to go back and do it the justice it deserves. But the reason I didn’t do it is that time, as I said earlier, simply ran out. Multimillion-dollar book-publication and TV-production plans had been set irreversibly into motion, and there was finally no way to resist them any longer. But the whole story is still there: I don’t think the impact or the importance of the book has been diminished in any significant way.
Fisher: The final—and most frequent—charge is that, despite all your attempts to document the history of your family, Roots can’t really be called nonfiction, because so few specific details could be corroborated that much of the book is a work of imagination.
Haley: That’s the one thing it’s not. All the names and dates are real. All the major incidents are true, and the details are as accurate a depiction of what happened to my family, or to thousands of families like us, as years of research can achieve. When it comes to dialog, thoughts and emotions, of course, I had to make things up; but even those inventions are based as much as humanly possible on corroborated fact. Call it “faction,” if you like, or heightened history, or fiction based on the lives of real people.
Fisher: However they choose to classify it, most reviewers have been ecstatic, hailing Roots as everything from “the epic of the black man in America” to “a book of such colossal scope that it arouses not only admiration but awe.” Are you embarrassed by all that approbation?
Haley: If I were, you couldn’t tell whether I was blushing, anyway. But what can I say when I see words like colossal and epic applied to a book I spent 12 years of my life working on? That’s the kind of thing any author would dream of having said about his or her book, and now that such a dream actually is coming true for me, it’s a little hard to believe. But because Roots is more than just a book I happened to write, because it has come to represent far more than just the story of my family, I find myself able to step back and see it—above and beyond any personal considerations and whatever literary merit it may have—as something that really is an epic: the colossal epic of a people.
Fisher: Some readers feel the book isn’t the story of the black man but of man. Was that your intention—and is that your hope?
Haley: It was and is. On its most literal level, it is the story of both my family and my people, for the ancestors of all of us were brought over here in the same way. But as I wrote it, another dimension began to emerge. Besides feeling that Roots might help restore to black people some sense of their identity and pride. I felt it might also help the descendants of their owners, and all peoples everywhere—Russian and Chinese, Catholic and Protestant, Arab and Jew—face the facts about the atrocities committed time and again, throughout history, in the name of everything from King Cotton to Almighty God. All of us, at one time or another, in one way or another, are both victim and oppressor, and fate seems to be rather capricious about who plays which role at any given time.
Black or white, for those of us here in America, this is our home. Except for the Indians, who already lived here when we arrived, the ancestors of all of us came across that same ocean on some ship. We must learn not only to live together but—by learning to see one another as people rather than as stereotypes—to love one another. That will happen when we face what we are and what we’ve done and then forgive one another—and ourselves—unconditionally, for everything.
Fisher: That’s a beautiful speech. But do you really think that will ever happen?
Haley: The truth? In the 55 years I’ve been around, I haven’t run across any great signs of a new awakening. On an individual basis, yes; now and then, a spontaneous act of kindness and understanding, here and there heart-warming cases of genuine brotherhood—like our own 15-year friendship, if you’ll allow me to get personal. But I can’t say I feel too optimistic about the perfectibility of mankind. On the other hand, I’m encouraged by the tremendous upswelling of emotion that Roots seems to have set in motion, an emotion that—to judge from the outpourings of sometimes even tearful gratitude I’m encountering wherever I go these days—seems to be not only cathartic but, in some way, healing. If people hadn’t wanted and needed that, hadn’t been ready for it, in some deep way, I don’t think the book would be nearly as important as it seems to have become.
Fisher: Aren’t people also responding to some pretty old-fashioned virtues in Roots? Whatever else it may be, isn’t the book a kind of tribute to the family unit as a force of continuity in human society and the repository of its values?
Haley: Say that again slow and let me write it down; I didn’t know how profound I was. But, yes, to me the family has always been the source and heart of every culture. I didn’t set out with that thought in mind as one of the messages of the book, but I guess it is. In the 40 or so years since I grew up in Henning, the family has been shrinking and drifting apart as America has moved from the country to the city, from huge, messy old homes echoing with the noise of three generations to closet-sized, $400-a-month apartments for swinging singles eating TV dinners alone in 600-unit high-rises; from sitting on front porches, listening to grandmothers tell family stories like the ones I heard, to sitting in suburban rec rooms with baby sitters while Mom and Dad go out; from screen doors left unlocked to steel doors triple-locked; from walking home after school by way of the fishing hole, the sand lot and Miss Scrap Green’s house, where she’d always have a plateful of hot cookies waiting on Thursday afternoons, to riding home through cursing mobs behind the barred windows of school buses with armed drivers.
I don’t mean to run down urban America; I live in Los Angeles and I drive a Mercedes. And I don’t want to romanticize our past; when I was a boy, we did without a lot of conveniences—like electricity—that have made life easier for everyone, and I grew up in a segregated town. But there’s no question that somewhere along the way between then and now, we’ve lost something very precious: a sense of community, which is nothing more than a congregation of families. Everybody in town knew everybody else in town; there wasn’t much privacy and there weren’t many secrets, but there was no such thing as loneliness, anonymity, psychiatry. People didn’t think about “role models” or worry about losing their identities. They weren’t so anxious to leave home and go “looking for themselves” in the big city when I was growing up. They usually wound up doing more or less what their fathers and mothers had done and spent their whole lives within a mile of where they were born. And felt good about it.
It was small-town America, and it was pretty much the same in Henning, Tennessee, as it was in Plains, Georgia, or Emporia, Kansas. I say was because the binding hardships that created them and the simple pleasures that held them together are slipping away, dying off even in the back country, along with all those square values like trust, decency, neighborliness, patriotism. Even those of us who never grew up there, as I was fortunate enough to do, feel a sense of loss and longing, as the media and the supermarkets and the exurban industrial complexes slowly homogenize the land from coast to coast.
Fisher: Do you think that process is inevitable—and irreversible?
Haley: Probably, but I don’t think it’s inevitable that the moral and spiritual values that give meaning to our lives—that we most cherish in ourselves—have to disappear along with the rural America that nurtured them. This sense of self-worth can be revived and sustained—but only by restoring pride in who we are and what we mean to one another. We need, among other things, to start holding more family reunions; however sophisticated we become, that’s where we all come from, and we can’t afford to forget it. But my fondest hope is that Roots may start a ground swell of longing by black, white, brown, red, yellow people everywhere to go digging back for their own roots, to rediscover in their past a heritage to make them proud. Man, that would make me feel 90 feet tall—to think I was the impetus for that!
Fisher: You don’t expect people to go through the kind of ordeal you did, do you?
Haley: No, just go rummaging through those old trunks up in the attic, in those old boxes under the bed; and don’t throw anything old away if it has to do with the family. But the first thing they ought to do is simply open their ears. The richest source of family history you could find anywhere in the world is the memories of your parents and your grandparents—memories that will tell you things you never knew or have long since forgotten about yourself; but perhaps even more importantly, they will reveal to you, perhaps for the first time, the true identities of those who gave you life—and shared theirs with you for so many years. This will make them feel needed, relevant, alive—and that will bring out the same response in you. And almost certainly, this exchange of caring will deepen the blood bonds that can make a close-knit family the strongest social unit in the world. And in ways that will be understood best by those who belong to such families—the kind that eat together, stand up for one another, share births and deaths—it may leave you profoundly changed. The giving and getting, the sense of belonging and contributing to something larger than yourself, to something that began before you were born and will go on after you die, can make it possible for you to accept life in a way that makes you wish the whole world could realize how easy it is to feel as you do, and wonder why they don’t. That’s what having roots—and writing Roots—has done for me. I pray that reading it—and then reaching out for their families to join in a search for their own—will do the same for everyone.
Fisher: One last question: What do you think your ancestors would think about all the acclaim over Roots?
Haley: I hope they would approve. I often think of the Mandinka belief that Kunta’s father expresses in the book: that there are three kinds of people living in every village: those you can see, walking around; those who are waiting to be born; and those who have gone on to join the ancestors. That idea was brought alive for me again recently while I was on the set, watching them shoot the TV series based on Roots. I found myself wishing Grandma and the others could be there, too. I could almost see Grandma, wearing that hat she reserved for state occasions such as a revival meeting—the one with a feather like an apostrophe on it—and I could just hear her making her own private commentary on the film: Her father wasn’t that fat, her grandfather wasn’t that bald. And then I suddenly realized that she really is watching, along with Tom, Chicken George, Kizzy, Kunta and all the rest. All of them are up there watchin’—and not just over me now, but over all of us.
(The above interview of Alex Haley is presented under the Creative Commons License. It first appeared in the January 1977 issue of Playboy. © 1977 Playboy Enterprises International, Inc. © 1993 by Ballantine Books. All Rights Reserved.)